Monday, January 09, 2012

Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 2: "A Classic Classic"

Two stories left, and for number two we go back to the beginning of 2011.

Much of the “story” of the 2011 Winter Classic took place in 2010 – the announcement of the teams, the hokey attempt at a hockey-football fusion at the press conference at Heinz Field (the site of the event) in July, the HBO 24/7 Winter Classic series, the story lines of teams going in opposite directions for much of the run-up to the game, the alumni game between legends of the Capitals and Penguins from years past.

(Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America)

But there were a few things saved for the first day of the new year. The first of them was what folks feared almost as much as an injury to an important player (cue foreboding music), and that was the weather. Even this subplot has its start in the old year; early advance weather predictions called for temperatures in the low 50’s on New Year’s Day with rain showers. Not exactly the “frozen pond” folks would have wanted. The league made provisions for a postponement, having reserved Heinz Field for January 2nd. Rain – more than temperatures in the 50’s – was the concern, for either making the surface uneven and unplayable if light rain froze as it hit the ice surface or for ponding of water on the ice in the event of heavier rain. Instead of a showcase of the game in a snow globe that was the case in the inaugural Classic in Buffalo, where it snowed for much of the game, there was the potential of reducing the game to pucks rooster-tailing across the ice.

On the eve of the game, the league announced the game would be postponed from its 1:00 p.m. start on New Year’s Day to 8:00 p.m. Not that it would matter. The game started under cloudy skies and threat of rain, a threat that managed to be fulfilled not long after the puck drop. By the beginning of the third period, the rain was light, but steady, requiring that the shovels come out at play breaks, not to scrape the ice shavings from the surface, but to squeegee the ponding water off the ice. Although the night backdrop was visually stunning, especially in comparison with previous Winter Classics, the rain and off-putting glare from the ice made television viewing disappointing and playing conditions difficult, if not dangerous.

(Photos: Getty Images North America)

As for the game itself, the conditions could not douse the intensity of the rivalry. The game was barely ten minutes old when John Erskine and Mike Rupp dropped the gloves and did battle with one another. The first period was a scoreless affair, both goaltenders – Semyon Varlamov and Marc-Andre Fleury stopping 12 shots apiece. But it was the second period that turned a game, a season, and ultimately perhaps a career.

Evgeni Malkin drew first blood for the Penguins with a goal barely two minutes into the middle frame. But with Max Talbot off for holding Alex Ovechkin, Mike Knuble showed what perseverance does. Nicklas Backstrom tried to center the puck from behind the Penguin goal line, but it pinballed into the crease, where Fleury tried to control it. Unable to get a handle on the puck, Knuble kept after it, trying to jam the puck through Fleury’s pads. After several attempts, the puck slithered over the goal line to tie the game.

The game remained tied for almost eight minutes until Jason Chimera sent the puck down and around the boards from the neutral zone. Fleury tried to stop the puck behind his net, but lost it in his skates. Marcus Johansson got to the puck before Fleury could find it and flicked it in front to a wide open Eric Fehr. All Fehr had to do was send the puck on its way into the open cage, and as he did so the Caps would take a lead they would not relinquish. It would have set up an exciting third period, but there was one more play that would have far-reaching consequences.

As the last seconds of the second period were ticking away, Kark Alzner was trying to clear the puck out the Caps’ defensive zone, backhanding the puck forward from the left wing circle. Sidney Crosby tried to block the clearing attempt, but the puck eluded him. Crosby turned to see where the puck went and to move back into the play. As he did so, he circled into the path of Caps’ center David Steckel, who himself was trying to jump up into the play as the puck was leaving the Caps’ zone. The paths of Steckel (six feet, five inches tall) and Crosby (five feet, eleven inches tall) intersected at the point where Steckel’s shoulder and Crosby’s head met. Crosby – apparently unaware of where Steckel was – was hit and fell to the ice, the play continuing. The horn for the end of the period sounded moments later, and Crosby left the ice doubled over from the hit.

As the period ended and Crosby slowly made his way off the ice, it looked as if he might not return to play, but return he did, taking nine shifts and skating 9:28 in the third period. All looked well. But the effects of such hits can be delayed in coming, and when he took a hit from Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman in his next game, Crosby started exhibiting symptoms of a concussion. He would miss the remainder of the season for the Penguins.

Had Crosby not returned for the third period of this game, the last frame might have been viewed as anti-climactic. But that not being the case, there was still the matter of determining a winner of this contest. The conditions were deteriorating, and the Caps were content to play a close-to-the-vest game. Still, Pittsburgh outshot Washington, 6-2, over the first 11:53 of the period. But that sixth shot for the Penguins started a sequence that would settle the game.

Paul Martin fired a slap shot from long range that goalie Semyon Varlamov stopped, but did not control. John Erskine peeled back and collected the loose puck, circling behind the Capitals’ net. Coming out from Varlamov’s left, Erskine sent the puck up to Jason Chimera, who fed Eric Fehr coming out of the Caps’ zone. After playing it back to Chimera, then getting it back one more time, Fehr was behind the Penguin defense with the puck. Fehr skated in on Fleury and snapped a shot over the goalie’s glove and into the net, giving the Caps a 3-1 lead that, given the conditions and only eight minutes remaining, was all but insurmountable.

Pittsburgh would manage only three more shots on goal in those last eight minutes, and the Caps would close out their 3-1 win. With the game ended, the teams ushered in a new Winter Classic tradition – the “no hand shake.” While the teams participating in previous Winter Classics engaged in the practice (traditional at the end of Stanley Cup playoff series, but not in regular season contests), the Penguins left the ice without shaking hands, and the Caps left the ice smiling. Frankly, a hand shake between these teams would have seemed forced and faked. They are not teams that care much for one another, and there was still the matter of there being two more meetings between them to come in the regular season.

For the Capitals, the event was unique, a novelty, and one that players, coaches, management, and their fans will remember for all the right reasons. Winning will do that, even in a steady rain. For the Penguins, the memories of this game will be tinged by what happened to Sidney Crosby as long as he remains sidelined (after returning for eight games this season, he sustained an injury that caused a return of his concussion symptoms).

We can see where Caps fans might read this and wonder why this game is a “top story” for the team when biggest story to emerge from it was the injury to Sidney Crosby. But that it would happen against one of the Penguins’ fiercest rivals, a team that has been joined at the hip with the other for many seasons now, in the midst of a unique setting for the Classic, and that the Capitals would win this contest between such fierce rivals in their first appearance in the game makes this one of the top stories of 2011.

Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 3: "Whatever Happened to Alex Ovechkin?"

We are down to the last three of the top ten stories of 2011. No streaks, no personnel moves. Just…a mystery.

The hype was not ill-placed. By the time Alexander Ovechkin was drafted in 2004, he already had a label as “generational talent.” The scouting reports were glowing, generally resembling this summary from Red Line Report:

“Simply the best player on the planet not already playing in the NHL. Just call him [Ilya] Kovalchuk, only with a great work ethic and a much better attitude. Terrific all-around player is as complete a prospect as we’ve seen in last 10 years. Explosive and dynamic every shift, and just has so many ways to beat you. Tremendous talent level is equaled only by his character and maturity. Intimidating speed forces defenders to back in off blue line, allowing him to gain zone easily. Not only has skill level off the charts, but hits hard and has dedication to defence. Dynamic, game breaking natural goal scorer with rocket shot and fabulous moves he makes at top end speed. Puck follows him like a magnet. Able to get hard shots off with checkers draped all over him. A dangerous, disruptive force who must be accounted for at all times. What’s left to say? Not as flashy and charismatic as Kovalchuk, but just as good a player, and is humble with no ego problem. Great teammate.”

Some might quibble with how this turned out – there would be questions about his defense, and he would be in his early years more charismatic than Kovalchuk – but he did not disappoint in confirming the “the best player on the planet not already playing in the NHL” description. He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 2006 after putting together a 52-goal, 106-point season for a team that would end up with only 29 wins and 70 standings points. In his first five seasons he averaged a scoring line per 82 games of 56-54-110, plus-13. Of the 204 wins the Caps compiled in those five seasons, Ovechkin had the game-winning goal in 41 of them – about once in every five wins. In 2007-2008 he set a league record for goals scored by a left wing with 65.

In 2010-2011, however, Ovechkin slid – hard. He would finish the 2010-2011 season with 32 goals, 14 below his previous career low, and 85 points, setting a new career low. These would be numbers most NHL players would welcome enthusiastically, but when you have spent your entire career on a list of two when it comes to “best player in the game,” these numbers fall very short.

By the time 2011 dawned, Ovechkin was in what for him was a prolonged slump. He went to Pittsburgh to start the new year in the NHL Winter Classic with only 14 goals and 42 points in 39 games. He had not scored a power play goal in 28 games and had only one game-winning goal in the same span of games. He did not get a goal in that Winter Classic game, did not have a point in fact. And it seemed as though Ovechkin could never get enough traction to string together consecutive games with points or games with multiple goals. Over his 40 games in the 2011 portion of the 2010-2011 season he managed to score goals in consecutive games three times (his longest streak was three games in the last week of the regular season), and his longest points streak was seven. That last streak might sound impressive, but this was a player who once had a seven-game streak scoring goals – as a rookie; and an 11-game points streak – again, as a rookie (both club records for rookies).

Two things were happening with Ovechkin as a scorer. First, he was getting fewer shots on goal. In his first five seasons he averaged 5.45 shots on goal per game. In the 2011 portion of the 2010-2011 season was down to 4.83 shots per game, a drop of more than 11 percent. Second, he was less efficient with the shots he was getting. In his first five seasons his shooting percentage was 12.5 percent. But in the 2011 portion of the 2010-2011 season that dropped to 9.3 percent. His 18 goals over 40 games was a 37-goal pace over a full season. When coupled with his 9.3 percent shooting percentage, he looked less like “Alex Ovechkin” and more like “Phil Kessel” (32 goals, a 9.8 percent shooting percentage for the 2010-2011 season); a good goal scorer, but not at the top of his sport.

There was no lack of potential explanations for his drop off. He was out of shape. He was a head case after his disappointing performance in the 2010 Olympics. He had taken too much physical abuse as part of his playing style. Defense had figured him out. He had too many outside interests. He was another casualty of goal-scoring being a young man’s enterprise.

The 2011-2012 season would provide an opportunity to Ovechkin to rehabilitate his game and his reputation as being among the game’s elite players. He came to training camp in better shape. He looked focused. He started the campaign as if his rehabilitation and return to the top of his sport was going to play out.

Ovechkin had five goals in his first nine games of the season, a 46-goal pace. But then came a game on November 1st against the Anaheim Ducks. Anaheim went out to a 3-0 lead, but the Caps came back to make a game of it in the third period, closing to 4-3 on a Troy Brouwer goal with eight minutes and change left in the contest. But that was as far as the Caps would get as the clock wound down toward the one minute mark. At a stoppage in play, head coach Bruce Boudreau and his staff drew up the strategy for the last minute and sent six skaters onto the ice, the goaltender having been pulled. None of the six skaters was Alex Ovechkin. It was surprising, to say the least, and not least of all to Ovechkin, who was captured on video mouthing an epithet in the direction of Boudreau. The Caps scored the tying goal in the last minute and won the game in overtime, but the talk was of Ovechkin’s benching in the game’s climax. Whether the benching caused what happened next is difficult to know, but starting with that game, Ovechkin’s November became one not to be remembered. In 13 games to start the month he was 3-5-8, minus-7, culminating in a grisly no-point, minus-4 effort against an injury-depleted Buffalo Sabres in a 5-1 loss. Ovechkin had not been a minus-4 in any game in more than three years (November 20, 2008 against Los Angeles), and it was only the fourth time in his career he had been that low in a game. Boudreau was relieved of his coaching duties after this game.

Dale Hunter took over for Bruce Boudreau, and there were two changes that took place pertaining to Ovechkin. First, his ice time jumped. In his first 22 games of the season, Ovechkin skated more than 20 minutes only five times, none in the last seven of those games. After the coaching change Ovechkin skated more than 20 minutes six times in 15 games to close 2011. Second, his production increased. After that poor start to November, Ovechkin ended 2001 with eight goals in 15 games, five of them in his last four games of the year.

Whether the way Ovechkin ended 2011 is harbinger of better things to come cannot be known, but it is now in the record that his 2011 was disappointing. He finished the calendar year 34-40-74, plus-9, in 77 games. He had ten power play goals (13 had been his low for a season in his first five years), and he had seven game winning goals (only one of those coming in the 2011 portion of this season).

Even in his playoff performance one could say that his results were disappointing. Even though he did finish the 2011 playoffs with a better than a point-a-game average, his ten points in nine games 5-5-10, minus-1) was a drop off from his output in previous post-seasons in which he was 20-20-40, plus-14 in 28 games.

We ended 2011 with two questions lingering over the production of Alex Ovechkin. First, could his drop in production be traced to an event or a cause? We looked at this last month, but find it hard to say that this or that definitively is the source of the problem. More important, though, is the question of whether or not this is the new normal for Alex Ovechkin or whether he can recover some of that magic from his first five seasons that seems to have been lost in the last two seasons. He was once the best player on the planet. In 2011 he was a very good player, but one of many, not one of a kind. And that is why the curious year of Alex Ovechkin is one of the top ten stories of 2011.